- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Bruce Cassidy, the Washington Capitals coach, repeated the question softly, thought about it and still wasn't quite sure how to answer.
"What are my feelings now?" he said. "I'm still thinking about too many men on the ice, and I think back to the Boston Bruins they used to be my team and how they lost a Stanley Cup to Montreal once on the same call. As the coach, you take the blame … but really, when you think about it, it was one of those instances where the linesman could have blown it down and called it an illegal substitution.
"What are my feelings? I'm sitting here kind of lost, wondering why I'm not going to work this morning. I can't describe my feelings. We weren't good enough to overcome some of the [adversity], but you have to give credit to [Tampa Bay]. They made big plays; we didn't. We were a 92-point team. We played better at the end [of the season], but we just weren't good enough."
The summer of soul searching has begun. The embarrassment and shame of last season, when the Caps missed the playoffs entirely, won't be present, but this may be a tougher summer. The Caps were close, just one goal away.
"If you look at the way we lost, it was unbelievable," Cassidy said. "There's an incredible story behind every one of those losses, not just one of them. Down 5-on-3 in overtime, are you kidding me? And that's right after Peter [Bondra] hit the crossbar.
"We just as easily could have swept that series. We came right down to overtime in Game3, and we were up 2-0 [in games]. We win that game, and it's over. You don't come back from three down, nobody does. What we needed was a goal, one goal from somebody."
That goal didn't come a week ago tonight in Game3, and it didn't come Easter Sunday evening in Game6, when the Lightning came through with goals in overtime.
"Their stars played better than our stars," majority owner Ted Leonsis said an hour after the clinching game ended, 4 hours, 18 minutes and six periods after it started.
But those stars didn't make anywhere near as much. Leonsis' NHL payroll at the end of the season was $50,364,725. The Tampa Bay payroll was $28,508,439.
Washington didn't win for a variety of reasons, although lack of goal production from people hired to score was probably paramount. Just as critical, however, was Washington's inability to handle the Vincent Lecavalier line with Vaclav Prospal on the left and Martin St. Louis on the right. Between them they had 11 goals; the rest of the club had three. When the young trio was on the ice, it was as if they were skating on a friction-free surface, while the Caps were skating in sand. They were opportunistic, not afraid to shoot from any angle in any situation.
"The players, I think they played hard at the end," Cassidy said of his troops. "Every one of them gave what they had. What do we need? We probably need a spark-plug, energy type of guy, somebody who could stand up but could also play a regular shift without being a liability."
Who? Cassidy couldn't comment because of tampering rules.
Who are the significant free agents? Defensemen Calle Johansson and Ken Klee both will be unrestricted free agents come July1 if they are not signed before then. Klee is 31 and had perhaps his best season as Sergei Gonchar's partner. He has given no indication he might retire.
Johansson, however, is 36 and has played the past season only partially recovered from reconstructive rotator cuff surgery. He has played more games as a Cap than any other player, and his name is etched all over the team record book. He is in excellent shape but may never regain full strength in his right shoulder. He has learned to cope quite well.
Michael Nylander and Sergei Berezin both will be unrestricted free agents if they are not retained. Both were obtained this season in trades with Chicago, and both were major threats in the sixth game against Tampa Bay. Neither, however, could get the critical goal.
Mike Grier's contract is also expiring, but at 28, the right wing is restricted and not going anywhere.
Bondra is 35 and about to enter the option year of his contract, an option the club holds. He has been a fan favorite since he joined the Caps in 1990. It seems inconceivable the club would not exercise its option on the wing. He had 30 goals during the regular season and led the team during the playoffs with four.

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